Lambaréné, at the crossing of the Ogooué River with National Highway 1, has long been an important market for wildlife trade in Gabon. When the Gabonese NGO Organisation Ecotouristique du Lac Oguemoué began surveys of the Lambaréné bushmeat market in 2012, the Critically Endangered slender-snouted crocodile Mecistops cataphractus was the most commonly observed bushmeat for sale. Between 2012 and 2015 slender-snouted crocodile bushmeat represented over half of all bushmeat from protected species recorded in market and restaurant surveys. Although the slender-snouted crocodile has been fully protected under national law in Gabon since 2011, local hunters, vendors, restaurant owners and consumers either did not fear law enforcement or did not understand that the species was protected, because they continued to openly advertise crocodile meat on restaurant menus and bushmeat tables.
In 2015 the Organisation launched an outreach campaign in Lambaréné—Projet Faux Gavial (Project slender-snouted crocodile)—to raise awareness about the species, rally pride for crocodile conservation, encourage local leaders and law enforcement to enforce laws, and change the preferences of the next generation of bushmeat consumers. Between October 2015 and September 2016 the Projet Faux Gavial team presented an environmental education curriculum on crocodiles at 14 local schools, launched student-led nature clubs that engaged in outreach about crocodile conservation, led community outreach with hunters and vendors at the local market, created a community green space with a crocodile mural, erected an informative panel on the protected status of the crocodile at the bushmeat market, and worked closely with local leaders to find ways to reduce commerce. As a result of these efforts, in February 2015, the Mayor of Lambaréné signed a decree forbidding the commerce of protected species in the city and pledging support to enforce protected species laws. In early 2016 the project team launched a citizen science project in which students use WhatsApp to record slender-snouted crocodile sightings and crocodile bushmeat for sale. The most active students in this effort will win scholarships for the upcoming school year.
Organisation Ecotouristique du Lac Oguemoué compiles biannual market surveys, at the opening and closing of each annual hunting season (March and September of each year). For the first time in 4 years of surveys the team found no slender-snouted crocodile bushmeat for sale during the closed hunting season of September 2015–March 2016 and only 4% of restaurant surveys included slender-snouted crocodile meat for sale. In comparison, during the previous closed hunting season (September 2014–March 2015), 27% of market surveys recorded slender-snouted crocodile meat for sale and 61% of restaurant surveys recorded slender-snouted crocodile stew on the daily menu. During the open hunting season of March–Sept 2016 no slender-snouted crocodiles were recorded on bushmeat tables and only two incidences of crocodile meat for sale were recorded in restaurants.
These early successes are promising but the team will need to maintain momentum to ensure that commerce does not restart or go onto the black market. In the forthcoming months the team will be looking for any black markets, identifying livelihood alternatives to hunting and selling crocodiles, and collaborating with local community leaders, including market representatives, teachers, law enforcement, conservation partners, elected leaders and religious leaders to keep this Critically Endangered crocodile off the bushmeat table and out of cooking pots.
We thank the Conservation Leadership Programme and the USFWS Wildlife Without Borders Program for their support. For more information on this project and the other work of Organisation Ecotouristique du Lac Oguemoué, see www.oelogabon.org.